Fourth of July, Bud Naughton used to grab a couple bottles of whiskey and head for the hills. He couldn’t take all that racket.
“It screwed up your nervous system. I guess when you are scared to death for 25 days, it screws up your head,” he said.
“Or it did mine, anyway.”
In 1944, at about 20 years old, Naughton enlisted rather than wait around for the draft. He stood with 50 other enlistees as a recruiter asked for volunteers for the U.S. Marines. Naughton turned to a couple of boys from his hometown, Oneida, S.D.: Let’s do it, he said. We’ll have that pretty uniform.
They raised their hands and the recruiter said: Well, I’m sorry for the rest of you poor dogs cause you just joined the Marines too.
By early 1945, when Kaiser Shipbuilding Company was churning out a new troop ship almost every week, Naughton was sailing toward Iwo Jima. Destroyers and battleships, stretching as far as he could see, bombarded the island of eight square miles.
“There was supposed to have been five pounds of shrapnel steel to every square foot of that island before we landed,” Naughton said. “We figured we’d just walk through there.”
Naughton was in the 18th wave. The Japanese allowed the first several to advance up the narrow stretch between Mt. Suribachi and the beach. Then they opened fire. “When we hit the beach, they’d slaughter us. They were just mortaring the hell out of us ... shooting us like ducks in a pond.”
Corpsmen carried the dead away, but many bodies lay for days, a smell Naughton still remembers. The Japanese fought from tunnels and spider traps — lid-covered holes. A Japanese soldier could stick out his gun, fire and duck back in before a Marine could tell from where the bullet had come.
In all of his 27 days on the island, Naughton says he saw only six Japanese men. Two he spotted running across a valley. Four, he discovered in one of those tunnels.
He and Herman New of Scottsbluff, Neb., were waiting for the tank to return. Marines followed the tanks forward, letting the flame throwers blast fire into the tunnels and advancing as the Japanese retreated deeper in. Marines dug in as the tank turned around to do it all again.
What’d you say? Naughton asked New as they waited.
I didn’t say nothing.
They waited longer.
What’d you say? Naughton asked again.
You’re going deaf, New answered. I didn’t hear anything.
They put their ears to the ground and spotted a hole the size of a cantelope, voices of four Japanese chattering from inside. Naughton threw a hand grenade in the air hole and ran.
His group had already lost two lieutenants. Soldiers were promoted faster than the paperwork could be processed. Replacements arrived most mornings.
What do we do Bud? They’d ask.
Keep your head down, Naughton would answer.
Then a newbie usually poked up his head to get a better look: “Curiosity killed the cat and that was the end of the poor chaps.”
On the 27th day, Friday, March 13, Naughton, New and other Marines kidded around, enjoying a breather while they waited for another tank. Naughton ran into a kid from home, August Fisher. They’d gone through boot camp together but landed in different divisions. They talked about old times.
Unseen, a spider trap opened its lid. The Japanese sniper shot August in the left arm. Marines scattered.
The only cover Naughton could find was a hole in the ground fortified by a rim of stacked rocks. Twenty or so other Marines had found it first.
There ain’t no room for you, they told him. Naughton climbed in anyway. He tucked it as best he could, leaving just his shoulder above the rim.
A bullet entered through his back, punctured his lung and exited his left arm, hitting another man. Naughton never learned what happened to him.
With every breath, Naughton’s lung drew in air through the baseball-sized hole in his back. His good lung sucked in blood from the punctured one. A Marine pulled out a pack of cigarettes, removed the cellophane and used it to cover the hole, creating an airtight seal. It saved Naughton’s life: “That kept me from drowning on my own blood.”
One Japanese sniper had inflicted all that damage, had scattered all those Marines before picking them off one at a time. Naughton doesn’t know what happened to the sniper.
Corpsmen hauled Naughton to a field hospital, and all the lung cases were flown to Guam. Only his head and one arm were free from the upper-body cast.
He remembers a dermatologist at the hospital, treating all the soldiers who’d been burned or blasted. Naughton asked a nurse if the doctor could do something for the acne on his face. The nurse went to ask.
Him? Naughton heard the doctor say. I’m not wasting my time on him. He’s not going to last long anyway.
After the hospital, Naughton worked in construction, teaching his bum arm to work again on the machinery. He could operate anything that walked, rolled or crawled. He followed big projects around the country, building dams and bridges and working on the Alaskan pipeline.
He sometimes wondered: What became of Herman New, that German kid who had a way of telling a story, of making men laugh even on that horrible beach made of volcanic sand. Americans secured Iwo Jima nine days after Naughton was shot, and as far as he knew, his friend had been alive then.
Then again, nine days was an eternity on Iwo Jima.
“I was in a fog,” Naughton said. “We used to cuss old lady Roosevelt because she said, ‘We better put them Marines on an island and reeducate them.’ Well it was half true.”
Naughton doesn’t remember how much time had passed when he tried to find Herman New. It was a few years anyway, after he was already married. He and his wife called several News in Scottsbluff, Neb., but none had heard of a Herman.
Naughton never heard any more about his buddy. If Iwo didn’t get him, Naughton suspects time probably has.